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Aldermen approve funds for depot renovations

NATCHEZ — The Natchez Board of Aldermen approved Thursday allocating $125,000 out of the city’s capital improvements fund to match grant funds it hopes to receive from MDOT to renovate the former railroad depot.

The vote of approval came at the request of Community Development Director James Johnston at the board’s work session.

Johnston said the $125,000 would be used as the city’s 20-percent match for $500,000 in Transportation Alternatives Program funds the city is applying for from the Mississippi Department of Transportation to renovate the depot on Broadway Street.

The match amount, Johnston said, is based on what Mayor Butch Brown said he believes the city can reasonably expect to receive from MDOT.

Ward 6 Dan Dillard said in his latest copy of the city’s budget report, the specific line item in the capital improvements fund for this expenditure showed no money in the account.

The money was used as a match for MDOT funds for the Natchez Regional Transit Facility, City Engineer David Gardner said. He said, however, the money will be replenished by the time the city needs it for the depot.

City Clerk Donnie Holloway disagreed with Dillard’s conclusion that account had no money in it.

Dillard said he believed the error was in the continually inaccurate budget reports Holloway provides to the board.

“It’s hard to make these decisions based on erroneous reports,” Dillard said.

The board’s approval of the use of the funds was contingent upon the money being available from the capital improvements funds.

In other news from the meeting:

•The board discussed the use of extra revenue the city is expecting, which includes approximately $30,000 monthly from the Cemetery Road oil well, approximately $190,000 from the sale of surplus property and next year’s $1 million lease payment from Magnolia Bluffs Casino.

Ward 1 Alderwoman Joyce Arceneaux-Mathis passed out a proposal to the mayor and board that included setting aside next year’s $1 million lease payment from Magnolia Bluffs for a rainy day fund.

After that, Mathis suggested dividing up the $1 million lease payment among the six wards in the city.

Mathis said that would allow the aldermen to have money for projects in their respective wards. Mathis added that the aldermen would not have to follow any sort of federal guidelines to spend the money as they would if it was grant money.

Mathis mentioned that when Brown was previously mayor, the city divided bond money among the different wards.

“In 2016, you’re going to run again, and you’re going to be able to show people what you’ve done in your ward and that you have a rainy day fund,” Mathis said.

Brown said that he disagreed with Mathis’ proposed plan for the money. He said he thinks dividing the money among the wards would be a “huge, huge mistake.”

“I personally think that if you divide that small amount of revenue…we are shortchanging the greater good,” he said.

Brown said the bonding that was done in the previous administrations was revenue bonding, which was based on revenue the city expected to receive. He said the money was used for street repairs and other things.

“When we did the bond and divided among the wards, we did not have a comprehensive street plan,” Brown said.

The plan, Brown said, ranks the city’s streets in order of need for repairs, overlay and other factors. Therefore, Brown said, the aldermen would not need to decide to have streets in their wards paved because the plan has the streets ranked.

Brown said the city could pledge the expected revenue of the Cemetery Road oil well toward a revenue bond. The board concluded that the well could yield approximately $3 million for the city over 10 years, if the well lasts that long.

Ward 3 Alderwoman Sarah Smith said the city could take what extra revenue it is expecting and use it to not take out a tax-anticipation loan for a certain period, or for a rainy fund, street repairs and public properties.

Ward 6 Dan Dillard said he wanted an accurate report of how the $1 million payment Magnolia Bluffs has already paid the city has been used.

After questioning Holloway about the various expenditures that the money was used for, Brown suggested that Dillard ask those questions when Holloway has a chance to collect the information.

•Director of Tourism Connie Taunton appeared before the board to discuss leases involving tourism.

The first was the lease the city has with the Natchez Convention Promotion Commission for the space the commission rents at the Natchez Visitor Reception Center and personnel services. The lease was extended until the July 2012 election, and no action has been taken on it since.

Taunton asked that the up to $82,000 variable management fee the CVB pays to the city be removed from the lease and used for the CVB’s marketing endeavors.

Taunton said the fee is based on revenue and has never been more than $40,000 to $60,000.

The board agreed but asked that City Attorney Hyde Carby review the lease before the board votes to approve it.

Brown said he believes the the city will have enough extra revenue to cover the management fee, so long as the money for the fee is used for tourism marketing.

Taunton also asked the board review how much Natchez Pilgrimage Tours pays to rent its space in the visitor center. The group currently pays $312 a month, and that amount has not increased in several years.

The rent includes utilities and janitorial supplies the CVB provides.

The group technically doesn’t have a lease with the city because it has not been renewed since 2010.

Taunton said she brought the lease to former mayor Jake Middleton but was told to hold off on taking any action on it.

Taunton said the Mississippi Welcome Center pays $5,000 for a similar space as the one NPT uses.

While on the subject of rent money, Brown suggested that the city carefully review its lease with the Natchez Festival of Music for the Margaret Martin Performing Arts Center.

Other groups use space in the center, Brown said, and only pay $150 monthly, which includes utilities.

The board agreed to review the rent amounts and leases and possibly take action at its next meeting on Feb. 12.

•The board voted to rename the city’s proposed speed hump policy to a speed-calming solutions policy. The board asked Gardner to draft a final policy and present it to the board at its next meeting.